On Nov. 3, Americans will turn on their televisions, pull up their Twitter apps, and log on to political news websites, eagerly anticipating election updates. They might be disappointed. While some results will filter in as the evening progresses, we may not know the outcome of the presidential election until weeks later. The delay would be frustrating, but it would not be a sign that the system had failed. A few important historical examples demonstrate that Americans have endured electoral delays in the past and have survived. We can do it again and should be prepared to be patient.
The election of 1800 has received a great deal of attention in this election cycle, and rightfully so. 1801 marked the first peaceful transition of power from one party to another, the election was a repudiation of anti-immigrant and anti-free speech legislation, and the outcome required extensive negotiations in the House of Representatives to resolve an Electoral College tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
With all of those important historical implications, it’s unsurprising that we overlook the most basic element of the election of 1800 — it took a really, really long time to resolve. In 1800, each state established its own voting practices, including when its citizens voted. As a result, voting began in April and continued through November of 1800. The House of Representatives opened the returns on Feb. 11, 1801, when they discovered that the two Jeffersonian-Republican (or Republican for short) candidates had tied. From Feb. 11 to Feb. 17, the House of Representatives cast a series of ballots to determine which man would become the third president. On the 36th ballot, the House finally broke the stalemate and selected Jefferson.
Local citizens penned a flurry of letters updating their friends and family about the next president and newspapers quickly printed and distributed the results of the election. Ships, carriages, and men on horseback carried the news across the country. Depending on the method of travel, the news took a few days or weeks to reach its intended destination. A few local readers read the identity of the next president as Jefferson was preparing to take the oath of office. In 1800, some citizens had waited up to 11 months, almost a full year, from the time they voted to the time they learned that Jefferson had won the election of 1800.
A Series of Delays in the 19th Century
While the election of 1800 offers an extreme example, it is hardly the only election with less than instantaneous results. In 1845, Congress passed a bill establishing that the presidential elections would take place on the “Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November.” In other words, until 1845, the states determined when they held their elections, so many citizens had to wait months to hear about the results. Once Congress had certified the electoral votes from each state, the news then took days, weeks, or months to cross the growing country.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, both then and now. In 1824, four men competed for president: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. States cast their votes from Oct. 26 to Dec. 1, 1824. When Congress counted the electoral votes, no one candidate had won a majority. The terms of the 12th amendment forced the House of Representatives to hold a contingent election, which Adams won on Feb. 9, 1825. By this point, news traveled a bit faster. On Feb. 18, former president John Adams wrote his son John Quincy after learning of his election, “Never did I feel so much solemnity as upon this occasion—the multitude of my thoughts and the intensity of my feelings are too much for a mind like mine in its ninetieth year—May the blessing of God Almighty continue to protect you to the end of your life as it has heretofore protected you in so remarkable a manner from your cradle.”
By 1860, the federal government had designated a single day for national elections and voters turned out to the polls in record numbers. In fact, turnout was 81.2 percent, second only to the turnout in the election of 1876. While voters didn’t have to wait months for other states to cast their ballots, the stakes of the election were higher than ever before. As news of Abraham Lincoln’s victory trickled across the country, states in the south seceded from the Union. From Dec. 24, 1860, to Feb. 2, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas announced their departure from the Union and the creation of the Confederacy. While the country knew the results of the presidential election relatively quickly, which states would remain in the Union remained uncertain and cast a dark shadow on Lincoln’s inauguration. 1860 proved there are worse things than not knowing which candidate won the election.
History remembers the 1876 election as one of the most controversial in the U.S. On Nov. 7, citizens cast their votes. Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote and 184 electoral votes to Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes’s 165 votes. But 20 votes from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon remained unresolved after Republicans accused local Democrats of ballot fraud and violence. Facing a potential constitutional crisis, Congress passed legislation on Jan. 29, 1877, to create an Electoral Commission. The 15-person commission was comprised of five members from the House, five members from the Senate, and five members from the Supreme Court. The commission helped broker a deal in which all 20 disputed electoral votes were awarded to Hayes, giving him a 185 to 184 electoral vote victory. In return for the presidency, Hayes promised to withdraw federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana. The departure of federal troops marked the end of Reconstruction and removed a significant barrier to Jim Crow laws that targeted Black civil rights. After arranging this compromise, the commission adjourned on March 2, 1877 — almost four months after election day. Hayes was inaugurated just three days later.
Until the invention of television, most citizens didn’t learn the results of the presidential election until a few days after they cast their vote. Even then, modern technology did not eliminate electoral suspense. Most readers probably have personal memories of the confusion after the 2000 presidential election, but here’s a refresher. On Nov. 7, citizens cast their votes. George W. Bush had clearly won 246 votes and Albert Gore won 250. Wisconsin and Oregon were too close to call, but the election came down to Florida and its 25 electoral votes. By the next morning, Bush was winning in Florida by fewer than 2,000 votes, triggering an automatic recount. Lawsuits on the recount went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the previous tally, thus ending the recount on Dec. 12, 2000. On Jan. 6, 2001, a joint session of Congress certified the electoral votes and Bush took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2001.
The 2020 election comes with many additional electoral complications. First, it’s not clear how COVID-19 will affect turnout for in-person voting, making polls unpredictable. Journalists and new agencies will be less likely to rely on unpredictable exits polls in order to call states for one of the candidates. Second, many more citizens are voting absentee. While some states vote entirely by mail in every election, including Oregon and Colorado, others are less prepared to handle the influx of absentee ballots and may still be tallying votes many days after the election. Third, there is a real threat that legislation will tie up the results for weeks or months after the election.
We might have results by the end of the evening on Nov. 3 and we can all go to sleep with answers. Much will depend on whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden wins certain states, and of course on the voters. For example, Ohio and Florida both count their in-person and absentee ballots as they are received, so they typically report electoral returns pretty quickly. If Biden wins both of those states, Trump’s path to victory becomes almost impossible and the powers that be are likely to call the election for Biden. But that outcome is not guaranteed and we should be prepared to be patient. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.